Poles apart: UK’s monarchy and India’s democracy

A republic is far closer to democratic traditions than a monarchy, where a queen or king from one dynasty is more privileged than the rest of the citizens.
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha.
Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha.

Over the years, Indians have become quite used to anchors in western media outlets like BBC and CNN talking down to them and deriding them for various reasons—often related to Hindu religious and social customs and rituals. But these channels rarely turn the spotlight on their societies or reflect on traditions that exist therein, which are completely out of tune with the modern world.

The issue at hand is the saturated coverage of the death of Queen Elizabeth II on these channels and the gushing, laudatory commentaries that went on 24X7 for ten days about the monarchy, the pomp and pageantry that surrounded the event, and the anointment of Prince Charles as king.

The colourful tunics, the regalia and the ceremonies surrounding the proclamation of Charles III as the King from St. James Palace and in all towns and habitations across his “kingdom” would surely seem anachronistic to Indians who, thanks to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, bid goodbye to their kings and queens 75 years ago. It seemed odd to watch the proclamation being read out in various locations in this age of social media and the internet. But, who are we to complain if the British wish to live in the past?

The processes and rituals involving the transition extend to various things, including replacing the queen with the king on British currency, postage stamps, and even the national anthem. The Indian tradition is just the opposite. We bring out postage stamps to commemorate the life and work of leaders, usually after their death. The anthem has changed—“God Save the Queen” has been replaced with “God Save the King”.

Indians who are groomed in the best traditions of democracy which guarantee liberty, equality and fraternity, and constitutional guarantees against discrimination of any sort (Article 15), would find it rather difficult to appreciate the top political leaders of the UK, including the present prime minister and several former prime ministers standing in the front row in St. James Palace and shouting “God Save the King!” following the official accession of Charles III as the new monarch. The Indian slogan on such momentous occasions is “Bharat Mata ki Jai” while the Americans would say “God Save America”.

Generally, western media commentators look at India, the world’s largest and most vibrant democracy, with a great deal of condescension. They often offer gratuitous advice to Indians on how to run their country. They delve into current political and social tensions in India and question the commitment of Indians to liberalism, secularism and democracy.

But there is no appreciation of the fact that, unlike the UK and many European nations, India is a complete democracy with all these values and other elements like republicanism, equality before the law, and a clear separation of religion and the state. These values are strongly embedded in the Indian Constitution and constitute the very foundations of the Indian state. On the other hand, each of these elements—fundamental to democracy—is missing in the UK.

This needs some elaboration. The first point is that a republic (where the head of state is elected) is far closer to democratic traditions than a monarchy, where a queen or king from one dynasty is more privileged than the rest of the citizens. Our head of state—the president—is elected by MPs and legislators from all states. It is not a hereditary office; therefore, every Indian can aspire for it.

India has seen presidents from various social, economic, cultural and religious backgrounds. We have had presidents from different regions and religions–North, South, East, West, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. We have had presidents from various castes and communities from the diverse Hindu samaj, including Kayastha, Reddy, Dalit, and Brahmin. Our president is Droupadi Murmu, who hails from a tribal community. Therefore, this office is open to all and is not limited to any dynasty or religious order.

On the other hand, the British monarch is wedded to the Church of England, and he takes the oath, among other things, to “defend the faith”. He also takes the oath to protect the security of the Church of Scotland (a Presbyterian national church). Also, few in India are aware that even within the Christian fold, adherents of the Roman Catholic Church are barred from ascending the throne in Britain. The monarch has to declare himself to be a protestant, owing allegiance to the Church of England and function as the “supreme governor” of that church, a tradition since the 16th century. Lastly, while the Indian Constitution imposes no restrictions on citizens vis-à-vis marriage, persons in line of succession to the British throne need the monarch’s permission to marry. Those who violate this injunction will lose the right to ascend the throne. How democratic, secular and liberal is this?

India’s decision to send President Droupadi Murmu to represent the country at the queen’s funeral, therefore, made a telling point vis-à-vis the democratic and liberal traditions in the two nations.

The second issue is the separation of religion and the state. The Indian Constitution emphatically declares that “No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds” (Article 28). Further, while the Indian president takes an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”, the British monarch takes an oath to “defend the faith”.

The British monarch wears several hats. He is the king of the United Kingdom, the head of the 56-member Commonwealth, largely comprising former British colonies, and the head of state of 14 other nations in the Commonwealth, which accept him as their king.

Three generations of Indians born in the Republic of India, where the head of state is not a monarch but is elected to office by peoples’ representatives, would surely wonder what all this fuss is about.

Therefore, as we continue to celebrate and enjoy the 75th year of our Independence, the sights and sounds that emanated from Britain this September must be a cause for quiet reflection among every Indian about how deep and progressive India’s democracy is.

There can now be little doubt that India is not just the biggest—but the most evolved democracy in the world.

Former Chairman of Prasar Bharati and scholar of democracy studies

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express